The thing is that every now and then David Cameron has an idea which doesn’t make me want to drive pins into my eyes and weep blood. And his suggestion this week that immigrants might learn and be tested on British history and culture as part of their citizenship exam is one of those ideas. Learning something about the place you intend to live and why it is like it is doesn’t seem like a burdensome demand to me, it just seems practical. And, at the risk of sounding like the girly swot you know me to be, it might even be fun.
So now we just need to work out the details. First, and most obviously, what kind of history do we want immigrants to know? I assume that when the Prime Minister says he wants them to learn British history, he doesn’t expect them to go back as far as the dinosaurs (they’re like European dinosaurs, except the fossils clearly reveal a stiff upper lip). He’s probably not keen on them learning about the druids either – too much focus on human sacrifice is probably not going to encourage integration.
So where do we start? With the Romans? The Emperor Claudius was so proud of his conquest of Britain that he named his son Britannicus. He also rode through our streets on an elephant, at exactly the speed of the modern rush hour traffic, but with more of a circus feel. The trouble is, if people spend too long learning about the Romans in Britain, they might get the idea that we are a nation of rebels which, by and large, we aren’t. When our situation becomes unbearable, we’re more likely to sigh and have a biscuit than revolt, which explains something about both our natural character and our obesity epidemic.
Maybe we should hop forwards in time to the Victorians, who represent the kind of Great Britain that I suspect David Cameron likes the most. But the most famous Victorians aren’t historical figures at all. They’re either unknown (Jack the Ripper) or fictional (Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes). Actually, Sherlock Holmes would be an excellent question for the test: who is the best Sherlock Holmes? Anyone answering Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone or (at a push) Peter Cushing can stay in the country. Anyone saying Robert Downey Jr is out on their ear.
So now all we need to do is find someone to teach this history syllabus. But since fewer than a third of pupils took GCSE history this year, we might have to import the teachers first.